Buying a car from a reputable auction house is a “safe” way to add to your collection. Yes, you must compete against equally serious buyers, but auctioneers depend on repeat business for their survival; they don’t stay afloat by ripping people off. And there’s far more legal comeback on a going concern than an individual seller. But buying a collectible car privately can be just as rewarding and much cheaper— if you use common sense, basic psychology and due diligence. First, you gotta know where to look.
Swap meets are a car collector's happy hunting ground. Although these events are populated by shade tree restorers looking to buy or sell ancient intake manifolds, you’ll find plenty of owners with grandpa’s old something-or-other for sale. Pomona, California and Portland, Oregon host two of America’s biggest swap meets. John Sweeney, editor of Cruisin’ News, runs another huge swap meet at Nevada’s Hot August Nights event.
The east coast boasts legendary swap meets in Hershey and Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Hershey event, known officially as the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) fall meet, began 51 years ago with the usual car club trappings. The event has grown to include roughly 10k vendor spaces spread out over several fields. Along with these mega-swap meets, there are plenty of regional congregations.
There are two key differences between an auction and the car corral at a swap meet. First, you can drive the car– if it’s drivable– or have it thoroughly inspected by a captive expert. Second, you’re usually face-to-face with the person who restored the car, who’ll tell you every hernia, heartache and foible along the way.
It’s best to scout a car on day one, and then go home and research values via phone (to a restorer, dealer or experienced owner), internet (forums, eBay and auction sites) or various guides. The basic rules of engagement are the same as a Moroccan bazaar: there’s a posted price and there’s the price that takes something home. The savvy collector circles a desired car like a buzzard, waiting for the last hour of the last day of the meet, when prices drop.
If your idea of a good time isn’t tromping through country fairgrounds or the soggy fields of Hershey PA or the old cattle stalls of Reno NV, try local car shows. That's because restoring cars is an addiction. Otherwise sensible enthusiasts spend thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars polishing automotive coal into antique diamonds. These cars will not, can not deliver anything like a reasonable return on their investment, and their owners know it.
Even better (at least from the buyer’s point-of-view), the restorer’s insatiable need to tinker and escape the wife and kids means that the end of one project MUST be followed by the beginning of another. So when a restored car is ready for show, it’s ready for sale– even if the owner doesn't think so.
Liberating these owners from their machines is simple enough. Just fawn over their handiwork a bit, ask what they’re working on now, note the pain their face and then offer them cash. Alternatively, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, tell them you have a friend who loves that model and ask if you can both visit the car later. Take an expert with you for a second viewing. Go away again and THEN come back with an offer. Even if they don’t sell, you’ll have learned a great deal about the obscure object of your desire.
Collector car stores are also a good place to make your bones. As the owners of these establishments readily admit, selling old cars is as more avocation than vocation. Their combination of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm makes most (though not all) stores an excellent starting point for neophytes looking to become a patron of the automotive arts. Also, in stark contrast to the auctioneers credo (as is, where is), they’ll also try to set things straight, such as fixing badly restored panels or swapping out inappropriate mechanical additions.
Much of the time, a vehicle’s asking price is the single best yardstick for measuring its provenance, overall condition and rarity. Again, price guides can help, but remember that dealers use the same booklets. Also keep in mind that “guide” is the operative word; each vehicle is unique and the collector car market is as volatile as Britney Spears on a night out. When you inspect a car, just make certain it is what the dealer says it is.
No matter how and where you find a car, always remember Lyndon Johnson’s advice: “A decision is only as good as the information it’s based on.” And then remember that Johnson was the president who said that picking-up a beagle by its ears doesn't hurt it.